Every morning, like a regular beat, nearly 70,000 students enter Osceola County classrooms.
That won’t change. The approach to educating them, and putting the best support system around them, can for what the community hopes is the better.
That happens despite Osceola County ranking 67th out of 67 Florida districts in per student funding, so its school district is tasked with doing the absolute most with less.
The track record’s been good — the district’s state grade is a ‘B’, but is committed to earn an ‘A’ by the end of the 2021-22 school year.
We are a district on the rise. Students are at the center of everything we do. Our students are doing the work we ask them to do. They are planning their futures on the belief that doing well in schools creates opportunities, that showing up and meeting expectations will prepare them for what comes next. As a school district and as a community, it’s our job to not let them down. That means we must believe in each and every student.
Stats show success – 96 percent of district schools improved or maintained their letter grade. And its high school graduation rate from 2018-19 was 90 percent, an all-time high and better than Florida’s 86.9 percent overall mark. Rates for groups like English-learners, students will disabilities, FIT family and free and reduced lunch all increased, showing a commitment to a mantra of “Every Child, Every Chance, Every Day.”
Pace said the district is “well on our way” to earning that ‘A’, noting the district has shown improvement in 10 of the 11 of the state’s “complicated” (Pace’s word) accountability formula.
What’s paving the way? Last June the school district identified five main strategic initiatives, and all of its objectives fall under them. Many of the goals and objectives under each have been checked off, most within the last year.
Academic success – Far and away the No. 1 priority. It’s not hard to see things are working — the Osceola County Class of 2019 featured 450 students accepted to Top 100 colleges in the nation, School Board member Tim Weisheyer said. The number of students in accelerated programs – middle-schoolers taking high school classes, high-schoolers earning A.A. degrees – is increasing.
There are areas that could see improvement – the district is being state averages in some math and science achievement areas – but achievement gaps are shrinking district-wide.
The most important work we do as a School Board is to make decisions to allocate resources that support what happens directly in the classrooms. It makes the difference between students becoming doctors or leaving that dream behind.
Talent Management – Teachers are the conduit between subject matter and students’ minds, so the district holds them to high-performing standards. Understandably, they need to be retained. School Board member Terry Castillo shared an 83 percent teacher retention rate and 65 percent among new hires (two years of service), historically the toughest segment of teachers to retain.
Supporting our new teachers is a crucial priority. Nothing the district is providing those new teachers at high-need schools with mentors and professional development. Those teachers who had a mentor last school year stayed on at a 91 percent clip.
The district also continues to grow the profession organically – the district joined forces with Valencia College and UCF to create the Future Teacher Academy, with academies at St. Cloud, Gateway and Osceola High schools. Enrollees receive a $2,500 stipend for their junior and senior internships, and the promise of an Osceola County teaching position for the promise of staying in the district at least three years.
“We have 100 students in these academies,” Castillo said. “These students are products of our own school district.”
Fiscal Responsibility – With 8,000 employees, the school district operates the county’s largest food service, transportation and maintenance operations in the county.
This happens despite its student funding position (and that it spends the least per student in administrative costs). That means doing more with less and operating lean, like closely managing energy use and managing health care and wellness programs, with the outside help like what’s received from the Rosen Foundation. There’s been no skimping on infrastructure, as renovations are going on, planned or upgraded.
“I feel strongly that our money is used in a prudent manner,” Board Member Clarence Thacker said. “Schools are a reflection of the values of our community.”
Then he dropped the bombshell of the morning.
Smaller counties don’t necessarily fare well when that happens, I can tell you there’s the potential for an $11 million loss to year to this county in state funding. The amount of discretionary money we have is very small, so that could be devastating to our district. I bring that up … if you have contacts in Tallahassee, call them to put in a plug to do anything they can to help us. We want to stay focused on turning that ‘B’ into an ‘A’, not pinching every penny.
Community Engagement and Governance – It’s about the transparency and bringing the classroom home in the ways it can, and the district touts enhanced reverse text messaging to get vital news home and creating a SmartBus with student stations, laptops and high-speed Wi-Fi for those living in hotels, laptops and high speed internet.
Osceola also touts itself as a local leader in providing school choice. Over 5,000 parents and students attended the district’s most recent school choice fair.
The School Board believes parents are in the best position to decide what educational environment best suits the needs and interests of their student or students.
The district is also touting 200 “high-impact teachers” identified based on student achievement.
“We know more than we ever have about the impact teaching has on student outcomes,” Soto said. “With the knowledge comes the opportunity to celebrate successes and support all educators in the journey to become more effective in the classroom.”
School Safety and Security – The district doesn’t talk about the specifics of its measures, but every school now has a School Resource Officer, and every staff member has received mental health awareness training, and has a mobile school safety app, which enhances emergency response that can communicate a threat to authorities in order to speed up response time, at their fingertips.
The district celebrates relationships, like with Valencia College, which inspired the Direct Connect relationship with UCF and a “Got College?” initiative that saw the 54 percent of Osceola County high school graduates go on to the next level, up from 40 percent in 2010.
We believe that everyone is college material, and we’re so proud of our students when they prove us right.
The Education Foundation acts as a support system for the resource-strapped district, creating programs like A Gift For Teaching to help stock classrooms with supplies, and a Bookmark Buddies mentor program that helps with reading achievement.
I wouldn’t want my daughter going to school anywhere else.
In the end, Pace said, the district will rise with the sun and its thousands of students tomorrow, just like yesterday, and the challenges presented will be met.
“Every new school day’s dawn comes with possibilities,” she said. “Inspiration is everywhere you look.”